BHS student Lydia Van Kley plays Marie Curie, famous for discovering radium, and dying from overexposure to radiation.
BHS student Lydia Van Kley plays Marie Curie, famous for discovering radium, and dying from overexposure to radiation.

The Ballard High School Playmakers have a history of diving into heavy theatrical works with political and societal messages. While the material may be dated, there’s plenty to unravel in the upcoming production of D.W. Gregory’s “Radium Girls.”

“I think radiation poisoning is albeit an extreme example, but the idea of workers rights being exploited to profit corporations, that’s very prevalent today,” said BHS senior Lillie Wirth.

“Radium Girls” tells the story of women factory workers in New Jersey who ingested dangerous amounts of radium when applying luminous paint to watch faces. Grace Fryer is the lead character in the play, and one of several women who challenged their employer under New Jersey’s occupational injuries law.

Wirth plays the attorney for the factory workers, and is also president of the BHS Thespian Troupe.

The factory women won their case, Wirth said, but still died horrible deaths in the end.

The antagonist in the play is factory manager Arthur Roeder, whose character is motivated by ambition and company loyalty. But he isn’t portrayed as a straight villain, Wirth said.

“He makes poor decisions, and he definitely has moments where he does horrible stuff,” she said, but the play also highlights the societal pressures he’s under. “A lot of it is just getting caught up in the numbers, I think, and I like that he’s portrayed that way.”

Villains don’t see themselves as being wrong, and casting Arthur Roeder meant finding an actor who could portray the character in a way that created space for sympathy, said “Radium Girls” director Chelsea DuVall.

“Ballard students are very good, so very quickly I knew who I needed where,” she said.

DuVall is a guest artist at BHS, who was first invited to the school by theater head Shawn Riley to be the dialogue coach during the 2016 production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She returned the following year to direct the play “Metamorphoses.

She said she enjoys working with theater students at BHS.

“I can hand them work that is at a higher level than most high schools, and I know they’ll rise to it,” DuVall said.

While “Radium Girls” is a straightforward story told in two acts — the dialogue addressing commercialization and marginalization — DuVall said she’s a more experimental theater practitioner, who “likes taking the lens out to see a larger picture.”

“In this regard, I decided to utilize a more experimental approach to the staging and the set design of it,” DuVall said.

In place of a set that could have included a factory backdrop, the actors move around a number of vertical LED light poles. Not all are lit all the time, but are selectively illuminated to draw attention to characters during the performance. It adds a futuristic feel to a period piece, which is mostly reflected in the costume design.

DuVall said high school plays tend to put a lot of attention on the actors, but she wanted to create an opportunity for the set designers and technicians to also shine.

“Radium Girls” will have performances starting at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 at the Earl Kelly Center for Performing Arts at Ballard High School, 1418 N.W. 65th St. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Purchase tickets here.